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Franco: Africa's First Modern Pop Superstar

The African guitarist, singer and bandleader known as Franco was the first modern international pop-music superstar in the continent, a sensation not only in his native Republic of the Congo, but throughout central Africa. He sustained a busy career from when he was 18 in 1956 to his death at 51 in 1989. Yet he remains little known in America — he never found a US record label to support him and he did only two brief tours here in the mid-80s. Fortunately, Franco recorded a huge amount of material — and two collections were recently released that could finally establish him in this country.

Now that Nigerian Afrobeat originator Fela Kuti has a hit Broadway play devoted to him, it's safe to say he's finally edged into the pop culture pantheon, a dozen years after his death. It's an open question whether an even bigger star in Africa, who's been dead even longer, the Congo's soukous master Franco, will ever get the same acclaim. He deserves it, but he doesn't translate as well, and not only because he never sang in English. Even so, two recent collections, Francophonic Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, make a powerful case through music and performance alone that Franco was an irresistible force — the so-called "sorcerer of the guitar." When Franco started out in the '50s, "jazz" was a generic term in the Congo for modern music and his band was called OK Jazz. They could be wonderfully sweet even when loudly boasting, as in an early hit that might have described their effect on audiences. Translated, it says "You Come in OK, You Leave KO'ed."

The early style of Franco and other groundbreaking bandleaders like Grand Kalle was called Congolese rumba, but that term was about as exact as "jazz." The music mixed several Latin styles and several indigenous folk modes, all the blends being very easy to dance to, though not as familiar to American ears as, say, Fela's funk and soul influences. One of Franco's strengths was that even after he became a wealthy star, he kept the sound of OK Jazz stripped-down and propulsive — no string sections, no heavy electronics. During the '70s and '80s, he downplayed the standard horn section and underscored the interplay of three electric guitars in a jamming section called the "sebene." These hot-licks workouts became so popular the music was given a new name, "soukous," and Franco was without question the grand master.

With help from Ken Braun's liner notes, it's easy to make out Franco's social role as a popular musician. Like the honky-tonk country performers and the first electric blues players in America, Franco celebrated, exhorted and comforted a vast audience that was moving from the traditions of rural life to the harsh jumble of urban striving. The Congo and much of Africa was throwing off colonialism and trying to get a grip on the modern marketplace at the same time. Two regular Franco themes were how not to foolishly waste your cash — and how to spend it.

The Francophonic collections feature the most vibrant, full sound of any Franco releases, particularly in the vintage sides. Vol. 2 is a recommended introduction. All of the Francophonic cuts present sweet choruses, tart horn sections and the great sorcerer's guitar swirling through everything, presenting Franco as he always wanted to be — larger than life, stronger than death.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Milo Miles is Fresh Air's world-music and American-roots music critic. He is a former music editor of The Boston Phoenix.